Digging Their Own Grave: Labor's Trade Fight with President Obama Symptomatic of Self-Inflicted Collapse

Last week, just as I went on my vacation to the Bahamas, news broke that bipartisan members of Congress had reached a deal on Trade Promotion Authority to allow the President to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (and a similar transatlantic pact) and ensure that it gets an up-or-down vote in Congress. Although the proposal currently working its way through Congress has this president - once again, surprise surprise - jump through more hoops than his recent predecessors who has what many call "fast track" authority, the White House quickly embraced the bipartisan deal.

The compromise deal gives Congress and the American people a full six months - as opposed to 90 days in prior TPA pacts - to consider an agreement. For the first 60 days after an accord is reached and even before the president can sign it, the trade agreement will have no action from Congress but will be fully open to public comments. Following that, Congress would have another 120 days to take an up-or-down vote. Congress is also for the first time imposing a human rights negotiating objective, and 60 senators can end this authority at any time should they deem that the final deal did not meet objectives set out by Congress.

To garner Democratic support, the bipartisan authors of the Trade Promotion Authority are also including expanding employment displacement assistance beyond the manufacturing sector, to technology and service sector employees. Although the pact as a whole will support more American jobs, not less, trade doesn't affect every facet of the economy the same way.

The media has noted the ironic alliances the TPP and the TPA necessary for it have built in Washington: Republicans and business groups who generally despise this president have lined up to support Trade Promotion Authority while a rather large faction of the Democratic Party and big labor groups are apoplectic at its seeming inevitability.

But what the media hasn't noted is that the Left's opponents of the TPA are operating on essentially a version of the Cheney doctrine: if there's even a slightest chance that a trade agreement will cause even one person lose their job, they argue, America must withdraw from global trade and assume a fetal position. And that knee-jerk, Cheney-esque tunnel-vision is causing American Labor and labor-funded Congresscritters to ignore a tectonic shift in American trade policy under a president whose unabashedly pro-labor policies have rivaled those of FDR.

It's one thing for the opponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to skip over enforceable environmental, internet freedom policies as well as using intellectual property rules to create greater competition. That's ironic in and of itself for a progressive movement that brands itself a champion of these issues.

But the greatest irony is that the push to oppose the TPP and the TPA are coming from labor groups who are either completely oblivious to the President's objective to globalize the rights of working people at a central, fully enforceable part of his trade deals - including the right to organize and collectively bargain - or are so territorial that their revenge of NAFTA is more important than ensuring the rights of working people elsewhere.

And that is the biggest reason the American labor movement is endangered. It has become territorial and unsympathetic to the plight of working people not simply across the globe but in their own communities. Just a few years ago, voters in San Jose and San Diego, California were forced to pass pension reform of police unions after the unions voted to protect plush pensions of their highly paid retirees rather than adjusting those programs so that more cops could be put on the street.

San Jose is a largely liberal city, while San Diego is more conservative. Yet both cities passed the reforms with overwhelming support, with liberal San Jose's residents voting in slightly higher proportions (70% in SJ, 66% in SD) to support those reforms. The challenges to those are still working their way through the court system in our state but the intransigence of labor unions, which have huge political power in our state, is not earning them any points in the court of public opinion - to the point when deep blue California may be looking at massive pension liability reductions despite strong union opposition on the ballot next year.

Now, I don't want to argue that unions aren't under attack. They are. The political Right in this country has been systematic - and systematically successful - in their long term goal of kneecapping unions and eroding protections for working people. But are they really entirely to blame when the argument can be easily made that labor unions themselves don't really care about jobs and wages either, except for those portending to their shrinking memberships?

American Labor has for far too long refused to recognize the changing realities of the global economy. For far too long, they have closed themselves into a self-protective, anti-trade box. In a movement where membership is shrinking, it may be the first instinct to become protective to stop the bleeding. But that is rarely an effective tactic as those outside your protective barrier come to view you - somewhat reasonably - as a group increasingly inwardly focused even to the detriment of other working people.

Incidentally, labor groups often blame NAFTA and similar free trade agreements for the collapse of union membership in this country, which currently stands at a paltry 6.6% in the private sector. But have a look at the chart at the beginning of this essay again. The rate of decline in union membership has remained astonishingly constant before and after the passage of NAFTA. NAFTA is responsible for a lot of bad things, but the decline in union membership isn't one.

A right wing sustained 40-year effort is responsible for that - AND Labor's own follies. Labor is continuing those follies by missing a golden opportunity. There is no reason within the light of facts - rather than the heat of knee-jerkery - as to why labor shouldn't rally behind the President on the TPP. Had they done so, they could have been part of the historical shift in American trade policy to globalize the rights and protections of all working people rather than clawing on the chalkboard repeating counterfactual talking points.

At the very least, they could have given the most labor friendly White House the benefit of the doubt (doubt, that is, since they seem unwilling to actually find any facts) and not staked their political power on trying to stop the most significant expansion of global labor rights ever. They could have demonstrated to the American people that they care about the rights of working people everywhere, that they are the future of globalization and not the protectionist vestiges of an era long past.



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